In any type of exercise or athletic training, optimal performance is reached when our primary source of fuel is fat instead of sugar. Fat stores are sustainable forms of energy, while sugars (i.e., glucose) are unsustainable forms of energy.
As a sugar burner, your body runs on glucose for fuel. That might sound ideal, but it also means your body doesn't go near your fat reserves to look for fuel.
- Discover why one should burn fat instead of sugar for optimal performance.
- Learn how to become a "fat burner."
- Understand why fat is a healthier source of fuel for the body.
Transitioning from sugar burner to fat burner means you'll move off burning sugar, allowing you to burn a steady, high-energy ﬂame all day long. You'll even burn fat while you're sleeping.
This is essential for maintaining energy levels and muscle performance. Fat has twice the energy of sugar and serves as a tool for body/health transformation. You have approximately 1.5 hours of sugar and 4 weeks of fat in your body available as energy fuel. Our heart rates determine the use of sugar and/or fat as fuel in exercise and athletic training. Higher heart rates use more sugar while lower heart rates use more fat. How do you effectively control your heart rate? By how you’re breathing, i.e., mouth breathing vs. nasal breathing (Kitchen, Nov 2015 Ironman).
In addition, when the muscle runs out of its stored sugar reserves it becomes acidic, which leads to the burn. At this point, the muscle needs more oxygen than normal to perform optimally. In the simplest terms, if blood flow decreases to the muscles, we experience muscle fatigue (and a host of other things). In sports, this is referred to as “blood flow stealing.” How do you get more oxygen to the muscle efficiently? Nasal breathing.
"The body is designed so the muscles responsible for breathing and the heart will take priority for oxygenated blood over limb muscles, meaning the rest of the body – legs and arms – will be the first to 'go' causing premature fatigue" (Journal of Physiology, Sept 2006).
The Key to Becoming a Fat Burner
Certainly, diet is an important factor here, but not the only one. How you breathe plays a large role in burning fat or sugar reserves.
Mouth and nasal breathing differ dramatically in how they physiologically support the body. How you breathe determines many factors; including how well you’re oxygenating your cells, the release of hormones, heart rates, lactic acid build-up, cardiovascular and digestive function and whether you’re burning fat or sugar.
Nasal breathing is based in parasympathetic response, while mouth breathing and/or shallow breathing trigger a sympathetic response (Novotny, 2007). While in a sympathetic response, the body is in fight-or-flight mode burning sugar as it’s the primary fuel to handle the energy it takes for this hormone production. This creates a toxic habit of searching for quick hits of fuel.
In the parasympathetic response we’re releasing more balancing hormones, creating an environment for steady blood sugar levels, reducing cravings and feelings of hunger. Not only does this enhance optimal performance levels, it’s the most efficient weight loss program as an overactive stress response leads to abnormally high levels of cortisol. High cortisol levels promote weight gain (Sominsky & Spencer, May 2014).
The restorative qualities of these nasal breathing patterns can leave your body feeling refreshed and renewed with virtually no lactic acid build-up. For performance athletes, this is the difference between winning or losing, after all the rigors of training.
Nasal breathing also activates and strengthens vagus nerve activity which influences metabolism. The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) is the main nerve of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The vagus nerve regulates metabolic homeostasis by controlling heart rate, gastrointestinal motility and secretion, pancreatic endocrine and exocrine secretion, hepatic glucose production, and other visceral functions (Harada, Yamazaki, Koda, & Tokuyama, April 2013).
Let’s set the tone for a workout...
The key is warming up the body with breathing techniques that activate digestion first. Then, incorporating various nasal breathing techniques to tease and relax the autonomic nervous system.
Tips to Get Started:
- Begin nasal breathing using the diaphragmatic breath. Watch these videos on Diaphragmatic Breathing: Technique and Benefits of the Ocean Sounding Breath and Breathe Your Way into Healthy Heart Rates. I recommend practicing this while walking in order to master how it feels to breathe this deeply as your heart rate rises. Then, take it into your sport or fitness routine. Slow down to master breathing in this way. Yes, you might feel like you’re drowning!
- Next, use a system of counting on your inhale and exhale. Inhale the breath for a count of three and exhale for six strides, pedals or seconds.
- Create another layer by inhaling for a count of three, holding the breath in for a count of three and exhaling the breath for a count of six.
I recommend practicing each of these individually until you master them, trying the second and third bullets (above) for five to ten minutes each. By the time you’ve got the third breathing pattern down you’ll have yourself a nicely sequenced warm-up. Then, let your body go . . . but don’t stop nasal breathing through the rest of your workout.
As you strengthen your diaphragm muscle, build on your counting. Imagine inhaling for ten counts, holding the breathing in for a count of ten and exhaling for 20 counts. Over time, you’ll discover the many yoga breathing techniques to integrate into your workouts and hundreds of ways to sequence them.
Whether you're a training athlete or fitness enthusiast, there is a science to exercising your body.
Kitchen, S. (November 2015). Do You Burn Fat Instead of Sugar, Retrieved from http://m.ironman.com/
The Journal of Physiology (Impact Factor: 5.04). 01/2006; 577.1:445-457, The influence of inspiratory muscle work history and specific inspiratory muscle training upon human limb muscle fatigue. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/
Novotny, S. (2007, February 1). The science of breathing. Ideafit.com. Retrieved from http://www.ideafit.com/
Sominsky, L. & Spencer, S. (May 2014). Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity, School of Health Sciences and Health Innovations Research Institute, Retrieved from http://journal.frontiersin.org
Harada, S., Yamazaki, Y., Koda, S., Tokuyama, S. (April 23, 2014). Hepatic Branch Vagus Nerve Plays a Critical Role in the Recovery of Post-Ischemic Glucose Intolerance and Mediates a Neuroprotective Effect by Hypothalamic Orexin-A, Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/